It’s Time for Different Strategies to Fight Racial Disparities

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White sneakers point up, black sneakers point down.



Those of us who have spent months and years working to make responses to youthful law violations effective, equitable and more just have much to be proud of. The volume of philanthropic investments working in sites directly, supporting research, advancing science, incentivizing advocacy and in some cases organizing have made a significant difference in youth justice practices.

There is no doubt that changes regarding objective decision-making, managing by data, introducing and understanding human development, strengthening legal representation, focusing on conditions of confinement and raising awareness about sexual orientation, gender identity and expression have resulted in documented improvements. All these improvement efforts have required persistence and a commitment to overcome deeply entrenched norms that drive the administration of justice.

James Bell (headshot), executive director of W. Hayward Burns Institute, has short gray hair, short gray beard, wearing dark suit, light blue shirt, yellow tie.As is the case with any effort to make institutional change, work on youth justice has seen its share of frustrations, setbacks and recalcitrance. Notwithstanding the progress mentioned above, the over-representation of people of color and their disparate treatment continues mostly unabated and in some instances has gotten worse. Which begs the question: What is it about the American experience wherein race and ethnicity lives so deeply in the institutional fabric of the administration of justice?

I do not believe we will impact this seeming intractability until we plumb the necessary depths required to unmask how racial and ethnic hierarchy lives in the administration of justice. In my mind there are deep and structural reasons for the resistance shown by race and ethnicity to prescribed regimens that have worked for other justice maladies, but not this one.

So now what? Some argue that we need to continue to do more of the same, only with more intentionality, while others, like myself, argue it is time to move to different strategies that take into account the unique intricacies of race, ethnicity and social control in the context of these United States of America. Countless polls have shown that white folks and people of color feel very differently about the impact of race on all aspects of civil society. There seems to be a sharp divide about the salience of race and ethnicity in the genesis of disparities and their vigor during the institutional life course of families and communities of color.

Far from colorblind

Data regarding where folks choose or are allowed to live and choose or are allowed to get educated reveal that we are as segregated a nation now as we were when Brown v. the Board of Education was decided more than 60 years ago. So our choices are not colorblind, and neither are the institutions that are constructed to reflect and enforce those choices.

For some of us, this notion of structural racism and the cultural hegemony that makes it the American norm has not just been in the periphery, but has been front and center our entire lives. It remains through presidential administrations, philanthropic trends and generational shifts. Communities of color do not have the luxury and privilege of wilful ignorance that structural racism allows.

In order to address the next generation of disparities, I believe we must walk new paths that explore approaches aimed at the structures where racial and ethnic disparities are so deeply embedded. An example of this approach involves the issue of targeting racial and ethnic disparities in a judicial apparatus that will never admit to being anything but race neutral and colorblind. In this context, is work on racial and ethnic disparities trying to provide a cure for a nonexistent disease?

We need justice-experienced people to lead

Indeed, even changing the face of who is in power does not inherently alter how structural racism manifests itself in the justice context. As author Khalil Muhammad points out, “We now live in a post-assimilation America … We cannot engineer a more equitable nation simply by dressing up institutions in more shades of brown.” This is but one of the many challenges ahead for reducing the effects of racial and ethnic hierarchy in the administration of justice.

Also, we need to extend our notions of “community engagement” to not only include the voices of folks most impacted by the justice apparatus but to be led by them. This shifts the paradigm and power dynamics that have prevailed in our approaches to disparities work. We know there are no instant solutions, but we are seeing glimpses in various jurisdictions of a way forward. The involvement of justice-experienced people in fashioning well-being, the use of credible messengers, engaging social media and technology and frank discussions about race ethnicity and power are powerful ideas to ignite the transformations necessary to positively impact disparities.

Poet Adrienne Rich commented that she longed to create something that won’t allow us to be passive. It is within our hands to create that something.

This submission is dedicated to Alice Paul and all women that paid a price for a better world.

James Bell is executive director of W. Hayward Burns Institute.

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